[h2]Drugs and the police[/h2]
[h4]Pot possession in the '60s was a serious offence. A baggie would get you jail time[/h4]
[h4]Neal Hall, Vancouver Sun[/h4]
Published: Tuesday, July 31, 2007
In 1967, John Conroy was a clean-cut University of B.C. student and a member of the varsity swim team. It wasn't until after he graduated that he formed the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Canada, becoming its first president.
"I wasn't really a flower child until the mid-1970s when I moved to the [Fraser] Valley and bought some acreage," Conroy recalls. "It was like a commune -- we had three or four families living on the property.
"People talk about the Sixties but much of it happened in the Seventies."
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Now a white-haired lawyer known for his high-profile legal challenges of marijuana laws, Conroy has fought cases at every level of court, including the Supreme Court of Canada.
One of the latter came in the case of David Malmo-Levine, who was busted for running a marijuana "harm reduction" club in Vancouver, selling pot at cost to those who signed a form promising not to operate heavy machinery, including cars, while under the influence.
Conroy said the nation's top court found the law prohibiting pot possession for personal use was grossly disproportionate in relation to the potential harm, but deferred to Parliament, deciding it was up to the politicians to change the law.
"I think they got scared -- and ducked," he now says of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling.
He said possession of pot in the 1960s was a serious offence. "People would do jail time for a baggie.
"Once I formed NORML, I was giving free legal advice to a lot of people," he recalled.
NORML's mandate: to eliminate all civil and criminal penalties for private marijuana use, believing the present policy of discouraging marijuana use through the use of criminal/civil law has been excessively costly and harmful to both society and the individual.
Pot offences were fairly rare in the mid-'60s but began to skyrocket in the early '70s, when there was a national debate to legalize marijuana, Conroy said.
He recalled the landmark LeDain Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, which began in 1969 and issued its report in 1972, recommending marijuana be removed from the Narcotic Control Act and that the provinces control possession and cultivation, similar to government controls on the use of alcohol.
"Every single one of the commissions has said this is pretty benign stuff," Conroy says. "We're still fighting it and we've still got people going to jail."
(The LeDain commission interviewed former Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono for the report. "The one thing that can be said about marijuana is it's non-violent," Lennon said. "If any government wanted to use it to calm people, they have got the ultimate weapon.")
Pot was made illegal in Canada in 1923, when it was included as a prohibited substance under the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, but the first seizure of marijuana cigarettes wasn't made in Canada until the 1930s.
During that time, the Toronto Daily Star wrote an article calling marijuana a "shocking new menace" and quoting a U.S. narcotics official saying: "Hideous crimes have been committed by smokers of these cigarettes. ... Our files show that many victims are confined to institutions for the insane after smoking these cigarettes for a period of time."
Similarly, during a parliamentary debate from the 1930s about banning marijuana cultivation, the U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics, H.J. Anslinger, was quoted saying marijuana was the "assassin of youth."
The reality was, marijuana busts were rare in Canada until the mid-60s.
In 1956, for example, there was one case of marijuana possession. By 1966 there were 112 cases, the first time the number had exceeded 100 in Canada.
A year later, there were 447 cases, jumping to 817 in 1968. By 1972, the number had reached a staggering 10,695.
During the 1970s, simple marijuana possession was not considered a serious offence. Usually a judge would impose a small fine for a small amount, less than an ounce.
But those convicted came to regret it, finding it affected future employment and they were barred entry in the U.S. in the 1980s, when a zero-tolerance policy was imposed, affecting those with criminal records.
Today, an estimated 600,000 Canadians have been busted for pot possession. A recent United Nations drug report said five million Canadians smoked pot in 2004, the fifth-highest percentage of usage in the world.
But few people want to talk publicly about their youthful experimentation with pot and other illegal drugs in the '60s, especially in the Internet era, when a U.S. border guard can do a Google search for evidence of illegal drug use.
That happened last year to 66-year-old Vancouver psychotherapist Andrew Feldmar, who was barred from entering the U.S. after a border guard did a Web search, finding an article about Feldmar's LSD experiences, which he wrote about in 2001 for the scholarly journal Janus Head.
Feldmar has no criminal record. But after admitting he was the author of the article, Feldmar was held for four hours, fingerprinted and asked to sign a statement admitting his drug use of LSD.
He says he won't apply for a waiver to allow him entry to the U.S, where his son and daughter live.
Conroy is still battling Canada's marijuana prohibition, recalling there have been many politicians -- Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, Jean Chretien -- who have promised to reform the law, taking away the stigma of a criminal record for small amounts of pot possession.
"Nothing really has happened," Conroy said, pointing out the Fraser Institute estimates the province's marijuana industry brings in $7 billion a year, making it B.C.'s largest cash crop.
"Let's regulate this stuff, tax it and get on with it," he said. "Alcohol does more harm. Prohibition simply creates a black market and feeds organized crime."
Former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell agrees, saying the law should impose a fine for small amounts of pot, instead of a criminal record.
Campbell, who has never smoked pot but was a Vancouver RCMP drug squad officer in the early 1970s and later B.C.'s chief coroner, says marijuana should be legalized and taxed.
"I think we could make a ton of money off this and fund health care," he said. "I don't think it is the demon it's made out to be. People who smoke it are not devilish fiends. I'd be willing to bet that 95 per cent of the 600,000 [Canadians busted for pot possession] never had a problem with police before."
Randy White, a former Fraser Valley Conservative MP and now president of the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, believes the legalization debate is over. The solution to Canada's drug problems is effective treatment and national prevention programs, he says.
"The House of Commons is not going to deal with that [legalization]," White said. "What's the point of rehashing this, pardon the pun, when it's not going to happen in the foreseeable future."